Small Victories Matter

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By Jacquelyn Potter

Jacquelyn Potter is on the Executive Committee of the local Sierra Club, where she is involved in activism regarding DAPL and other pipeline issues.

A celebration of joy erupted in the cold, snowy and wet camp at Sacred Standing Rock the other day, with reports of traffic jams and crowds of people dancing, singing and hugging. There was a good reason for this collective expression of happiness; this large exhale of relief. An important breakthrough was recently made regarding the recognition of Native American tribal rights and lands, when President Obama kept his word when he said “there is a way for us to accommodate the sacred lands of Native Americans,” making the final decision to deny the easement for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) underneath Lake Oahe, and to reroute the pipeline away from native sacred homelands. In response, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe expressed that they would be “forever grateful to the Obama Administration for this historic decision.”   Although this decision falls short of stopping the pipeline entirely, there are reasons to celebrate it as a milestone. This decision sets a precedent regarding human rights and land rights v. unchecked exploitation by corporations. This decision has mandated that the Army Corps of Engineers requires an Environmental Impact Statement and public input, both of which, at least by law, are a check and balance of protection in the process.

This milestone was hard-won by the many Native American tribes, protesters, supporters and US military veterans who all came together as Water Protectors to peacefully stand up to the unlawful, abusive and often violent oppression by privatized para-military forces, government agencies and militarized police forces that were hired by or serving the will of the government support of Energy Transfer Corporation. This has been a huge turn of events since just days earlier the Army Corps of Engineers had attempted to order the Water Protectors to evacuate after weeks of abuse by police and para-military using “less lethal” weapons such as cold water sprays in freezing weather and rubber bullets that injured Water Protectors both young and old, sometimes severely (as well as injuring horses ridden by Water Protectors). Such actions constitute human rights abuses and have already brought consequence in the form of a federal lawsuit against county sheriffs and 73 different police agencies.

The decision to explore alternate routes for the DAPL crossing came after a delay allowing discussions between the Army Corp of Engineers and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation is located 0.5 miles south of the proposed pipeline crossing that would jeopardize the water supply and infringe Native American treaty rights. Corp Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, stated that “Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, and that “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” Darcy said this could be accomplished via Environmental Impact Statement and public input and analysis.

The DAPL issue not only brings up environmental concern in general, but also would have direct impact on the environment here in Illinois. The proposed DAPL, over a thousand miles in length, would connect the Bakken and Three Forks oil production areas in North Dakota to a terminal near Pakota, Illinois. It would amount to a 30-inch diameter pipe transporting approx. 470,000 barrels of oil per day. It not only would run over sacred Native American lands and water sources, but also over hundreds of communities and farms, with corporate misuse of Eminent Domain to pressure or force property owners off their properties. It would threaten natural areas and wildlife habitat, running underneath the Missouri River as well as many other rivers, streams and creeks on its way to Illinois. Within Illinois, this pipeline also poses direct threat to rivers, streams and creeks, as well as potentially threatening recharge areas of our Mahomet Aquifer near the Illinois River. History shows clearly that the question is not if a pipeline will break and spill, but when.   There were several pipeline ruptures and spills just within the past few months as the DAPL protests occurred.

Throughout the tumultuous DAPL events, the Sierra Club has supported the Water Protectors. Prairie Group members participated in several different facets of the opposition to the DAPL, including attending and participating in protests, rallies, petitions and meetings with local and state government. Along with the ongoing protest at Sacred Standing Rock camp, there have been protests all across the Midwest, including in Illinois. One of the protests took place in Pakota, Illinois, where Prairie Group members joined other activists and Native Americans in peacefully protesting the area where the DAPL is proposed to end up before it heads south to Texas, where it would be shipped out of the country to the international market.

As the DAPL events were unfolding, our Sierra Club Prairie Group also learned of the proposed pipeline expansion by the Canadian corporation Enbridge to “twin” (expand) the Line 61 pipeline (renaming it Line 66) running through Illinois from Canada. Our Prairie Group has been busy coordinating efforts with Save Our Illinois Lands (SOIL) to head off the expansion of the Enbridge Pipeline as it poses direct threat to land and water sources, including sensitive recharge areas of the Mahomet Aquifer, of which many communities depend upon. Coordinated efforts also included contacting, informing and mobilizing Illinois land owners about the dangers the pipelines pose and the tactics used by the corporations to take their land. There have been meetings with local and state government. Earlier this fall, members of Prairie Group, local Native American representatives and other environmental groups and activists came together to speak to the Urbana City Council about the dangers of the DAPL and how such pipelines threaten water sources close to home. Our Urbana City Council responded by drafting a resolution similar to that drafted in Minneapolis, MN, but also including language about the risks to our aquifers and the need to protect them. This too, is a small victory, but is important precedence to show the will of the community and its leaders to protect water, land and human rights.

The state of affairs regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline has been in constant flux, with headlines (increasingly now in mainstream media) telling of progress and challenges. The response to the Obama administration’s refusal to approve the easement for the DAPL has been swift and arrogant. Pipeline corporatocrats said that they would continue to go ahead with construction and simply pay the $50,000 per day fine. When faced with this outright and outrageous level of wealth and corruption, we know that the fight is far from over and we must not relent. What we’ve had through the Obama administration’s decision, is a validation (albeit at the 11th hour) of Tribal Treaties, Native American land rights and an emphasis on environmentally-responsible procedure. Although this may not be the ‘big’ victory we wanted, it is still important and should be celebrated. As we get to the close of 2016, we must celebrate these small victories as they can give us incremental momentum and precedence for further victories. At the very least, requiring a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement will show that the pipeline would endanger the water sources and safety of every community it goes through. And, by also requiring public input and analysis, the voice of the people is underscored as being integral to the decision-making process, as it is supposed to be in a democracy. Strategically this may be more of a victory than we realize. As our Prairie Group chair has wisely said, “This kind of procedural step may be the best thing that the Obama administration could do – it probably can’t be immediately un-done by the incoming Trump administration.” However, it is, as ever, up to us, the people, the environmental activists and organizations; the Water Protectors, to hold our government accountable to enforce its own environmental laws and agency procedures. We must demand that corporations be held accountable for actions against the environment and human rights. In 2017 you can bet we will bring the fight!

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